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Grey Squirrels

Grey Squirrels
Native to North America, the grey squirrel was
brought to Victorian Britain as an ornamental species
by the aristocracy. Today, these highly intelligent and
adaptable animals can be seen in woodlands, parks
and gardens across the country.

This, in turn, led to them being killed by specially

formed Squirrel Clubs who were paid a bounty, and
hundreds of thousands of the pests were killed. And
that was all before the grey squirrel arrived.

While many people have great affection and respect

for grey squirrels, they are hated by members of
certain groups, most notably those with shooting or
forestry interests, and some conservationists who
believe that the mass killing of greys is justifiable in
their quest to boost the number of red squirrels.

Reds not Threatened

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Professor Stephen Harris from the School of

Biological Sciences at the University of Bristol studied
the effect of grey squirrels on red squirrel numbers.
He wrote that the vast sums of money spent on red
squirrel conservation are not a wise investment, partly
because red squirrels are not even an endangered
species. He wrote: Globally, red squirrel populations
are not threatened and the conservation effort in
Britain is of little importance.1

The Hated Red Squirrel

Conservationists Whimsy

Red squirrels were once persecuted in the same way

and for the same reasons that greys currently
are. With hundreds of thousands being killed by
squirrel clubs, numbers plummeted. In order to
boost numbers again, red squirrels were brought to
the UK from Europe. Prof. Harris notes that, should
appropriate habitats which could sustain colonies
of red squirrels, become available in the UK, more
could easily be imported.2 However, the stress of
capture, transportation and release into an unknown
environment is a serious cause for concern, so why
not leave red squirrels where they are thriving instead
of trying to force the animals to live in different areas
simply so that certain people can enjoy having them

After hundreds of years of persecution, the red

squirrel is now the poster animal for the conservation
movement. Why? There is no doubt that using an
attractive animal boosts interest and funding, and
the publics affection for red squirrels was ignited in
childhood, through Beatrix Potters Squirrel Nutkin.
Those who call for a cull of grey squirrels including
certain members of the House of Lords invoke
Squirrel Nutkins name often, and get quite misty
eyed over the demise of an old childhood friend.
Such emotive anthropomorphism is unhelpful, and
designed only to manipulate.

Population Flux
It is simplistic to say that grey squirrels have caused
the demise of red squirrels. It is true that grey
squirrels are hardier than their red cousins and can
live in a wider range of habitats, which gives them a
significant advantage. It is also true that grey squirrels
can carry a virus, which appears not to affect them,
while it can kill reds. But in a recent study, red
squirrels who died from other causes were found to
have an immunity to the virus, indicating that many
are able to recover from it.3
Red squirrels have endured much misfortune,
largely at the hands of people. They declined to
near extinction in the eighteenth century because
of deforestation and more were introduced from
the continent. In the nineteenth century, forest
plantations reached maturity and so red numbers

Different species go in and out of fashion. Two

hundred years ago, red squirrels were considered
vermin. Today, they inspire such fervour that their
supporters demand the deaths of tens of thousands
of squirrels of a different colour just to try and boost
the numbers, even marginally, of reds in the UK. It is
an illogical campaign.
As mentioned, red squirrels are not endangered,
but thousands of other species are dangerously
so. Directing energy and scant resources towards
saving one species based on emotion, rather than
scientific need and practical objectivity is whimsical
and illogical.
True conservationists identify where the need
is greatest and where there is the chance of a
successful outcome and direct their energies there.
Sadly, there are those who choose merely to aid their
favourite animal, no matter the cost.

shely bryan

Logical Conservationists
Animal Aid sees the value in individual beings,
recognises that nature is in flux now more than
ever, perhaps and that animals must adapt or
die out. We can help them by not destroying their
habitat, driving more carefully, reducing pollution and
working to combat climate change. Furthermore, we
should recognise that humans have caused much
damage to the planet and to its other inhabitants, and
should no longer persist in the arrogant assumption
that we know best. Instead, the natural world should
be allowed to adapt and change.

Its bad luck, we made a mistake, we

shouldnt have brought them in, but then we
didnt know better back in 1876. But now
there are certainly better and bigger things to
worry about, things where we could make a
massive difference if we werent occasionally
distracted by a small band of lunatics who
are insidiously bogged down and blinded by
sentimental racism. Things where we can
prevent rather than cure, create rather than
destroy, things upon which our conservation
cash would be more productively spent if only
we could accept that perfect paradise is lost
and that a new version of it is realistically all
we can have. An environment where change is
allowed and where difference from the ideal is
exciting and new.4

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Chris Packham, writing about grey squirrels

and conservation efforts

Hidden Motives
It is not just some conservationist groups who want
grey squirrels to be killed. The bird-shooting lobby
also supports and conducts mass culls. They kill
squirrels because they cannot tolerate the animals
eating some of the grain, which is intended to keep
the pheasants in one place until they can be shot.
The shooting industry is extraordinarily intolerant of
any animal or bird who interferes with its interests,
even if the damage amounts to just a few pence.
At its core is selfishness and greed, but it is often
draped in the language of conservation. Ironic, then,
that the shooting industry releases 45 million nonnative birds into the countryside each year and kills
countless native species in order to protect these
birds until they, too, can be killed for sport.
Other avid proponents of grey squirrel destruction
include timber industry elements. This is an industry
that for the same reason supports culling deer.
And their reason is that squirrels and deer live in
woodlands and, inevitably, cause some damage
when they eat from the trees.

thrive. Are we going to kill every animal who strays

beyond acceptable boundaries?
Persecuting alien species, in any case, is not a
uniform policy, which suggests that killing for nonnativeness is more of an excuse than a legitimate
reason. Some aliens like the rare moth who
was found in the UK in 2006 are welcomed and
make headlines.5 But should a sufficiently vocal or
powerful vested interest want members of an alien
or invasive species killed for whatever self-serving
reason their foreignness provides a ready-made

the common perception still seems to be

that everything living here when the land bridge
to mainland Europe was inundated at the end
of the last ice age is native, everything else
non. Pity that, because it immediately makes
forty eight percent of our terrestrial mammal
fauna non-natives, and so presumably if the
Grey squirrels have to go then so do all the
rabbits, hares, four of our six deer species and
so on. Thats going to be a bit expensive then,
better put the helicopter gun-ships on standby,
and of course it will leave us with a lot less
mammals and completely balls up the communities of other creatures which have adapted
to live with these incomers since they arrived.
Mr Buzzard will miss those rabbits and I cant
see Mrs Public being too happy about the
extermination of Fallow deer and all their little
Bambis. But Im being silly of course we make
exceptions for nice animals, its only the horrible ones we want to ecologically cleanse.6
Chris Packham

It is true that grey squirrels are not native to the UK.
Like sheep, cows, chickens, cats, three species of
deer and many other animals, they were brought to
our shores, no doubt against their will, to be exploited
in one manner or another. Those who escaped or
were released into the wild and now thrive should not
be persecuted further.
As climate change accelerates, many native species
will die out and many identified as non-natives will

While some people condemn the grey squirrel as
a non-native species, other non-native species
are brought to the UK as a matter of routine by
collectors, zoos and for the pet trade. History has
shown us that many of these species escape or are
released (which is why there is a herd of wallabies
living in Bedfordshire and a flock of parakeets in
London) and yet these trades thrive. Non-native
turtles and terrapins live in British waterways and

have a big impact on the ecosystems, and yet it

remains legal to trade in terrapins and turtles.
If those who campaign against certain species on the
grounds that they are non-native truly believed their
own arguments, they would call for an immediate
end to the trade in all non-native species. Instead,
conservationists dream up schemes to introduce
or reintroduce species into the wild, even though
there may be no ecological niche for them, they
could endanger existing ecosystems, or they could
themselves be in danger.

In shocking laboratory experiments, one squirrel out

of 26 who was caught by the neck the optimum
place for a swift death was still alive after three
minutes. Both squirrels who were caught by the
shoulder were alive after three minutes, and all 17
who were caught by a limb were also alive after a
three minute period.11

There seems to be little sign that lessons are learned.

Individuals Versus Numbers

Aside from the subjective and illogical nature of many
conservation efforts, Animal Aids perspective differs
from that of conservationists in one very important
regard. We believe that individuals matter. The life of
a grey squirrel (or a red one) is as important to him
as our lives are to us. Where we see individuals with
rights to live free from being deliberately harmed,
conservationists tend to see numbers. If there arent
as many of their favourite animal as they would like,
they will happily kill others to try to achieve their aim,
irrespective of the suffering meted out to individuals.
If you translated that kind of thinking into the human
population, youd find some very uncomfortable
historical and, sadly, contemporary parallels.

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Culling is Cruel
Squirrels are killed using a variety of methods, all of
which are utterly shocking.

In late winter and early spring, squirrel killers may

choose to drey poke. One person will poke the drey
(the nest) with a long pole while the other takes pot
shots at any inhabitants who run away.12 The young
who are left in the nest may be killed by dogs.13
While there are many qualms about this method, the
2008 Central Science Laboratory report states with
regard to drey poking: However, in pest control the
priority is to kill the most animals for the least effort
and it has been argued that in this context efficiency
tends to override welfare.14
Grey squirrels may also be poisoned with warfarin
a drug that causes internal bleeding and does
not kill the animal for an average of nine days.15
Symptoms of warfarin poisoning in rats have been
described thus: the hair stands on end, blood volume
drops, eyes and nose get bloody, there is laboured
breathing, loss of weight, haemorrhaging below the
skin, hypothermia, blood in the urine and faeces.16
The Central Science Laboratory states: The animals
typically remain conscious until just prior to death.17
The Pesticides and Safety Directorate has called the
use of such drugs markedly inhumane.18

One common method is to live trap the animals and

then kill them. Animals trapped alive experience fear
and distress until the trap-setter returns, which can
be after many hours or even days. While guidelines
state that traps should be checked at least once
daily, there is no statutory requirement to do so.7
Once the trapper returns, he is likely either to shoot
the squirrel or bludgeon him to death in a sack. The
sack method is commonplace8 but the difficulty of
making a clean and effective strike in the correct
place when the operator cannot even see the animal
inside the sack, should be obvious to all.
The choice of firearm for those who prefer to shoot
their victims is dictated by personal preference rather
than effectiveness.9 Most pest control officers
prefer to use air rifles or pistols because these are
not subject to certificate control under the Firearms
Another method of dispatching squirrels is to
use spring traps, which often do not kill outright.

In the winter there is no cover and you can

pick them off with a .22 rifle. They all get
together in the cold. You can get eight or nine
with a couple of shots. All huddled together.
We just annihilated them.19
Paul Parker, grey squirrel killer

Culling Does Not Work

Aside from the cruelty, culling does not work.
Professor Stephen Harris found that rapid
recolonisation and an increase in reproductive rates
compensate for losses through culling.20 A bounty
scheme in the 1950s killed 1.5 million squirrels but
caused little impact on the population. There are
many examples of where culls have not worked and,
in those that do, the effect is usually only temporary.
Recolonisation can be extremely rapid. There are
exceptions for example, on the island of Anglesey
but in Thetford Forest, the mass killings of greys
made no difference at all.21
Culling is long-term and costly and bound to fail.

Squirrel culling is not a new phenomenon.

Some 60 years ago the Ministry of Agriculture
started to encourage people to kill squirrels,
offeringI remember it only too clearlya shilling a tail. I became a very wealthy young man
at that time, as we had a lot of grey squirrels in
the area and I did not need a lot of encouragement to do something about them. When the
government at that time had paid out some
250,000, they decided that that was enough.
There was no perceivable difference to the
squirrel population.22
Lord Plumb, 2006

Reds in Decline
According to Professor Stephen Harris, there are
three reasons why the number of red squirrels has
declined in the UK: habitat loss; displacement by
grey squirrels; and disease.23

Habitat Loss

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Forests are no longer simply a habitat for animals

and birds. Many are managed by timber companies,
which plant trees most suited to their business
needs, irrespective of the effect this has on wild
fauna populations. Recent forestry plantations tend
to favour grey squirrels. If forests were composed of
Norway spruce, larch and Douglas fir, red squirrels
would be well catered for, and grey squirrels would
be discouraged.

There are areas of Britain where greys and reds
have co-existed for a number of years but greys are
hardier than reds and able to live in a wider variety
of habitats. The competitive advantage they have is
greater in deciduous woodlands but in coniferous
woodland, the two can coexist for longer. Inevitably,
species that can best adapt to their environment

Red squirrels are particularly susceptible to disease,
including a lethal pox virus. Whether grey squirrels
were harbouring this virus when they were brought
to the UK, or whether it was already endemic in the
native reds by then is unclear but it is known that
grey squirrels carry the disease without developing it
whilst reds usually succumb. When the reds die out,
greys take over their niche. However, a 2008 study
found that some red squirrels had developed an
immunity to this virus an indication that some red
squirrels, at least, can survive it.24

Humane Ways to Help the Red

Red squirrels are not endangered, although their
numbers have declined in the UK. Should we wish to
offer them the best chance of surviving, there are a
number of measures that can be taken:
1. Alter forestry design, planting and felling
practices so that red squirrels have a
dependable supply of seeds.
2. Establish them on islands. Already, there are red
populations on Anglesey, Brownsea Island, the
Isle of Wight and on Arran, and there are other
islands with suitable habitat but currently no red
squirrels, including Mull.
3. Develop a vaccine to protect the reds against
the pox virus. The estimated costs are far
cheaper than culling.
4. Provide supplementary feeding of the right foods
at the right time.

when I look out that window I see gardens,

parks and woods and hedgerows full of foreign
species and I know they are here to stay, so
wouldnt a live and let live policy be a little
more feasible? Did someone forget to put
windows in the ivory towers?25
Chris Packham

1 Harris, Stephen et al, Is
culling of grey squirrels a viable
tactic to conserve red squirrel
populations?, Aug 2006, p. 2.

12 Ibid., p.18.
13 Ibid.
14 Ibid., p.20.

2 Ibid.

15 Ibid., p.16.

3 BBC News, Ray of Hope for the

Red Squirrel, 15 Oct 2008.

16 Ibid.

4 Chris Packham, Ecological

Cleansing, Wildlife
5 Parliament welcomes rare
beauty, The Times, 14 July 2006.
6 Packham, op. cit.
7 Central Science Laboratory,
Review of the methods of humane
destruction of grey squirrels,
2008, p.4.
8 Ibid., p.5.
9 Ibid., p.10.
10 Ibid.
11 Ibid., p.21.

17 Ibid.
18 Harris, op. cit., p. 8.
19 Tim Adams, They shoot
squirrels, dont they?, The
Observer Magazine, 19 Oct 2008.
20 Harris, op. cit., p.10
21 Ibid.
22 Lord Plumb, speaking in the
House of Lords, 23 March 2006
23 Harris, op. cit., p.4.
24 BBC News, op. cit.
25 Packham, op. cit.